Mindfulness (Meditation in Action)

By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo


   Mindfulness is the path to the deathless;
   Heedlessness is the path to death.
   The mindful do not die;
   But the heedless are as if dead already.
   Dhammapada 21

THE Dhammapada also says:

(1) Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as  the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.
(2) Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.
From these two verses we know we have to be aware of our thoughts as they arise, and then control them and finally master them so that the action that follows is pure and wholesome. In the essay on Insight Meditation, we learned to merely look at our thoughts by (1) observing (2) watching them. By looking at our thoughts head on they become fewer and slower in their appearances. This is a way of (3) controlling them. Now that one is dealing with meditation in action, one should also (4) master them as well by allowing only wholesome thoughts to arise and then, if necessary act upon them. In sitting meditation the thoughts that arise must be choiceless, but now that we are out of formal sitting, we should exercise control. That means these 4 actions of observing, watching, controlling and mastering should be done simultaneously in our meditation in action.


Awareness means " bare attention" or "passive observation" without judgement, comment or interpretation of the facts with our intellectual knowledge. This means that we simply look with a quiet mind. If the mind has thoughts we look at these. If there are emotions, we again merely feel them. In "bare attention", we "look at" and not "look for" or "look into". When we look for something, we are expecting to find it, and when we do not we are sorely disappointed. We then lose energy and balance.


When a thought or an object first comes into our awareness that fleeting moment of pure awareness is uncontaminated by identification or label. This brief moment of mindfulness may last only a fraction of a second. It is before your cognizance of the perception, before naming of the object and judgement of the same. This is the moment of pure awareness. This pure quality of mindfulness vanishes before the chain of memories can arise to remind one of the pleasant or unpleasant object or incident. It is this unfocussed moment of pure awareness that we want to prolong in Insight (Vipassana) meditation. It is a very difficult but not impossible task.
In mindfulness, the mind merely mirrors what is seen or heard at the very moment of occurrence. It does not take sides. It does not judge or condemn. It merely watches impartially. It should not affect the observer. There should not be any enchantment, pleasure or displeasure engendered by what is seen or heard. In the seen, it is only the process of seeing. Similarly, in the heard it is only the hearing. It is only the process and not the object. There should not be any thought or concept accompanying the seeing, hearing, touching and tasting. Thoughts arise merely as mental pictures or running verbal commentary with no reflection or analysis or categorization. We merely register what is happening now not a minute ago or the future. It is always in the present. There is no emotional or intellectual reflection, no analysis, no selection. It is totally passive and impartial. The perception does not pertain to self: it is purely third party. The "I" is not involved. There is no accent on any topic or scene: they are all the same. It is only the white screen accepting every picture projecting onto it by the projector. It does not discard or distort any frame of the film.
Finally, the wisdom to be gleaned from this practice is that everything arises must pass away. Those who cling to this compounded ‘thing’, wishing that it would remain the same, will suffer discontent and conflict.

Four Foundations of Mindfulness

In Buddha’s Discourse on Mindfulness---Satipatthana Sutra, four distinct subjects were enumerated for the Vipassana practice. They are (i) the body, (ii) feelings or sensations, (iii) states of mind including emotions, and (iv) objects of the mind. The latter two topics have been dealt with in the essay on Insight Meditation (Vipassana), and they can be practiced during the sitting sessions. The practice in these two topics is entirely based on choiceless awareness. In formal sitting this is feasible. However, once you are out of formal sitting, you have to make a choice. In these two areas of meditation in action, we have to comprehend clearly four fundamental facts. They are (1) Purpose of our Action, (2) Suitability of the action and our own capability to do it, (3) The action must be within the Domain of Meditation, (4) The real state of things (reality) as they appear and the true nature of these phenomena.

(1) Purpose of the Action: Every action or reaction must have a purpose. Otherwise we end up aimlessly in our activities. We may also be distracted from our original purpose. Therefore, our purpose must be held tenaciously till the end of that action. Needless to say, the purpose must be a wholesome one and it could be included into the domain of our meditation practice. Say, for instance, one is on the way to pay for one’s TV license on the last day. Half way there one meets a friend whom one has not seen for some time. So one stops to chitchat over a cup of coffee until alas the post office is shut for business for the day! One has to go over to the post office again the next day and pay a fine for being late. All this bother because one did not mindfully stick to one’s purpose.

(2) Suitability: Before embarking on the task, we must ask ourselves whether the task is suitable in the ethical sense. Is evading income tax or parking along double yellow lines an appropriate act for a Vipassana practitioner? Is it a skillful act to queue up for dole when one is a millionaire? We must also realize the extent or limitations of our own capabilities for a certain project. Is the goal of the project set too high? Are we capable of raising such a large sum of money? If it is too ambitious we must fail. If it is not in our power to choose the course of action then we must exercise skillful means in the choice of our actions.
(3) Domain of Meditation: In the Buddha’s days, some of the monks were given meditation subjects to hold on to throughout the day. However, when they are entering into any discourse with other people, the subject must be dropped temporarily. However, in our scheme of things, it is our intention to be mindful of every movement in our daily life. In this practice, we do not have to drop the subject matter. This method will be described in detail below.

(4) The True State of Reality: In this comprehension, we have to bear in mind the delusional character of our minds. We are constantly deluded that desirable things are permanent or unchanging; we are deluded to think we can escape from suffering if we continue to chase after desirable things. We are also deluded by the seeming permanence of our body and mind, which we tenaciously hold onto as the "self". These 3 main delusions must be repeatedly broken by meditative wisdom.


Buddha suggested six ways of looking at the body. The last 3 categories will not be discussed in this paper. They are (iv) the body in decomposition, (v) analysis of the body in 32 parts, (vi) the four elements that make up the body—earth, heat, water and air. However the other 3 categories need some elaboration. These are (i) breathing, (ii) bodily postures, and (iii) every bodily action.

(i) Breathing: We should simply be aware and mindful of our breathing as an arising and falling phenomenon from moment to moment. The breathing is not controlled and it should be allowed to be an automatic movement. We simply notice and register that there are pauses after each inhalation and exhalation. The arising and falling of the breath must be seen as a process of change and impermanence. This flow cannot be stopped; if it ceases we expire. This is the reality of life.

(ii) Bodily Postures: We must be fully aware of our postures, as in sitting, standing, lying, and walking. The mindfulness must include details like, what is the texture of the carpet we are standing on? Is the floor we are sitting on hard or soft? What is the material we are lying on? All these details must be recognized at that moment in that particular posture. We must be mindfully aware of the surfaces and consistency of the chair, the bed or the ground that we are in contact with. We have to notice the postures we like best and the aches and pains that are attendant to each posture. Then we must also realize that the changing of the posture also relieves the pain. This is a relief of suffering. So we keep on changing our positions to cure the pain. So the reality to be gleaned here is that living incurs pain and constant change. The true self does not suffer, but body and mind do. This is the Anatta doctrine.

(iii) Every Bodily Activity: This is the practice recommended here. From the time we wake up to the minute we fall asleep, we must be mindfully aware of every bodily activity from moment to moment. While the action is being enacted, there should not be any thoughts of other matters in our mind. There should be full concentration on what we are doing with an empty and silent mind. Of course, for a beginner one cannot perform this awareness for any length of time. For the first day, start with five minutes. Then one may increase the duration day after day until at least half an hour. Then one can further stretch it to an hour, and then to hours on end. When one wakes up in the morning, first notice the bed sheets covering the mattress. Also notice the blankets covering one self. Then register the desire to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Walk mindfully to the bathroom to relieve one self. Then with full awareness brush the teeth, wash the face and complete all the other chores like shaving or powdering the face etc Whatever has to be done it is done with full concentration and mindfulness. Then we have to change our clothes, put on our shoes, etc until we arrive at the breakfast table for our food. The process goes on until one cannot continue to be mindful anymore for that morning. There should not be any absentmindedness. The awareness is applied moment to moment.

Walking Meditation

Walking meditation is an essential component of all Buddhist, monastic practice. The principle here is the same as in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Moment to moment mindfulness in our walking without thoughts is the practice. Choose a straight path of ten to twenty spaces in either a secluded or unobstructed area, preferably amongst trees. Start at one end of the path. Stand straight with a relaxed body especially the neck. Both hands may be kept either in front or the back or at the sides: which is the most comfortable to the meditator. Stand still for half a minute. Then start walking. The pace is ever so slightly slower than one’s usual pace. Do not try to analyze or break the steps into separate movements like ‘lift, forward, and down’. Just walk normally. Do not walk in rhythm with your breath. This is a mistake. You cannot concentrate on two things at one time. Just mindfully walk and be aware of the sensations of the soles and feet. Do not walk too slowly, as this artificial pace brings out tension. Look ahead and straight, but do not look at anything in particular. Don’t look at your feet. Flowers, trees and people must be passed over with no interest spent on them. The mind must be empty and silent. Do not allow tension to arise in the body. Do not try to look good or appear graceful. Just be aware of the walking experience and the sensations arising thereof. Enjoy the feeling of walking. No problems and anxiety are allowed in one’s mind.
Now having arrived at the other end of the path, stop and slowly turn around to face the other way. Again stop for half a minute, and continue your walking meditation as before. After some time, your walking meditation will develop into a nice swinging exercise to be relished. There is now no more strain or jerks. The pace can now be increased to your normal walking speed. Then a time will arrive when a ‘high’ can be achieved. There is this flowing to make one feel as if one is walking on air! At this point nothing distracts us. It is only the "walking". There is no ‘I’ or the ‘body’ walking. It is just "walking".

Feelings and Sensations

In Buddhism, there are six sense organs and not five. They are the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, and the brain. These organs see, hear, smell, taste, touch and conceive sense objects. When the eyes see an object, the eye consciousness must rise simultaneously for the contact to arouse a feeling or sensation. The sensation may be one of three varieties: pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent.


      Sensation-----------> Pleasant--------------> Desire

        (reaction)   ---------> Indifference---------> Dullness

                    ---------> Unpleasant-----------> Aversion or Repulsion

                           DESIRE leads to  GRASPING or CRAVINGS

                 REPULSION leads to ILL-WILL or HATRED


Similarly, other sensations are being elicited with noise, food, fragrances, surfaces and concepts. They can arise only if the person is conscious. If the person is in a coma, although his sense organs are intact, no sensation can be elicited.

The most important point in this exercise is to be aware of the sensation as it arises. At that moment, we notice whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent not later or before the event. More often than not, we jump straight into the action of going towards or away from what we see or hear without being fully aware of the pleasant or unpleasant sensation. This type of action is without awareness and therefore unmindful. We must also use effort to register the neutral indifferent sensation; this is essential, otherwise we become dull. The object is there. It is neither attractive nor odious. Note it. We pause to be fully aware of the sensations and then purposefully act in a wholesome manner. This technique requires severe discipline because it is the action that seals our fate, as it is karma productive. If we simply realise our pleasant sensation and our tendency to be attracted by it and do not act, then no karma is produced. If we meet a person we do not like, we do not run away from him. We, instead, stay to converse with him with courtesy, love and compassion. This requires discipline and determination. A certain amount of forgiveness must accompany this act. Forgiveness is the erasure of bad karma. Therefore, this moment to moment awareness of our sensations is vital in our practice, but it is extremely difficult, as we have to interact spontaneously at that moment. However, if we have no other thoughts in our mind (preferably empty), then the action is simpler. The lesson to be gleaned here is that circumstances change very rapidly (anicca), and moments of emotional difficulty often crop up (dukkha). So if one is not identified with one’s body and mind (anatta), then the situation is not alarming at all. The action then becomes smooth and spontaneous as no ego is involved.

Mistakes in Vipassana

Although many teachers are very fond of teaching Vipassana, there are many errors committed by these teachers. The most common error is using Samatha objects for Vipassana. These are some of the examples:
1) Repeating mantras, visualisation, counting of breaths and chanting of sutras. These are all Samatha objects and not Vipassana.
2) Mentally focusing on the words and their meaning, like ‘rise and fall’ rather than observing the actual abdominal movement. Instead of just feeling the sensations in the legs, do not focus on the words of ‘raising, forward and stepping down’.
3) One should not focus the mind on the walking movement and simultaneously try to co-ordinate the breath with each step. It is not possible to focus on two objects in the consciousness at the same time. When walking, simply observe and feel the walking movement only.
4) It is not correct to be vaguely aware of the abdominal movement or air striking the nostrils without focusing on the ‘rising and falling’ aspect of the movements.
5) It is not Vipassana practice when you are ‘thinking about’ the rise and fall of the abdominal movement, or ‘thinking about’ the air striking the nostrils, or ‘thinking about’ walking without actually focusing on the present movement.
6) Neither is it Vipassana, when one acknowledges the ‘rise and fall’ of an object after it has fallen away. Mindfulness has to know the present object ‘now’.
7) It is impossible to catch the mind moving, due to its rapid flux. Abhidharma says "There are 17 thought-moments in one second!’ It is somewhat easier to slow one’s thoughts in theta wave, and then merely watch the pictures at the third eye or listen to the mental chatter head on.


According to Buddha, practicing Vipassana on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is the only way to enlightenment. In the first two foundations one can practice in sitting meditation. In this instance the method is choiceless awareness: to observe, to watch and to control one’s thoughts and states of mind. The controlling is indirect in the sense that when you see your thoughts head on they diminish in number until your ‘thoughts come to an end’. This is the way of practice by Krishnamurti who surprisingly advocates no meditation. It is not known how one’s thoughts can come to an end without meditation.
Then when one is practicing meditation in action, outside of formal sitting, the observing, watching and controlling must have another element of mastering. To master is to see that all thoughts, speech and action are wholesome. That means a certain amount of control and sieving is required in the planning for action. In the activities of the body, there is just the pure awareness of the movements with no thoughts in the mind. In perceiving the sensations resulting from the contact of the six sense organs, whether the feeling is pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent is noted right away, not one moment later. Of course, this act is very hard to follow. Of all the four foundations this act is the most difficult one. And that is why Buddha said: "this is the only way".
One is able to realise that thoughts and emotions are not self with sitting meditation, when one arrived at Silence, Stillness and Emptiness of thoughts. One can intellectually know that the body is not self when one sees a corpse. But to fully realise that the body is not self, one must practice the four foundations diligently until the full impact of that wisdom suddenly appears.
And it is only when the realisation of no self in the body coincides with that of the mind, can one claim to have entered the stream. This means in the Theravada lineage, one becomes a Stream Enterer. This is the first of four stages of Sainthood. At this point, one has the most 7 more lives to go, and every life is at least a human being (not in hell, not a hungry ghost and not an animal). This is the best breakthrough in the Theravada practice.